Measures of man

Measuring and Weighing in Ancient Times

January 25, 2002

Historical metrology - the study of the origins and development of measurement - is an esoteric scholarly pursuit, typically relegated to subdisciplinary status within economic and architectural history. The earliest evidence for historical metrology comes down to us in the form of ancient artefacts used largely in trade and building - ie balance weights and scales, clay vessels manufactured to standardised capacities, and linear rules. We cannot be sure when humans began to measure their environment and their products (Bertrand Russell suggested that the first person to see the connection between a brace of pheasants and a couple of days was a mathematical genius in his time), but there exists compelling evidence for counting in the late Ice Age. Certain engraved bones from Upper Palaeolithic Europe seem to depict lunar phases, suggesting that Homo sapiens occasionally documented the cyclical nature of time. Indeed, many paleontologists nowadays distinguish our species from earlier hominids on the basis of our powers of abstraction, most evident in symbol-making. After the first scripts appear toward the end of the fourth millennium BC, the metrological picture becomes at once clearer and more complicated. Empirical (archaeological) evidence builds for a multiplicity of local systems of mensuration.

The work under consideration is an eclectic volume of 15 essays accompanying an exhibition at the Hecht Museum in Haifa, Israel, until July. It is beautifully produced and lavishly illustrated. The essays, inspired mostly by artefacts from Eretz Israel, are presented in full text in English and Hebrew. The contributions include bibliographies, but they are erratically footnoted and thus of limited value for scholarly follow-up. On the other hand, the broad conception of historical metrology here - including consideration of time reckoning by calendars as well as zodiacs alongside the predictable attention to weights and measures - is most welcome.

Avner Raban addresses problems of capacity standardisation in ancient transport amphoras, the containers used for long-distance trafficking in foodstuffs. He deals ably with the quantitative ambiguities that existed before mass production (in Bronze Age and classical times). His essay ranges widely in time and space, and his statistical survey of clusters of capacities suggests that distinctions made between liquids of different densities (such as olive oil and wine) reflected differences in valuation.

Several essays, while short on analysis, are nonetheless workmanlike and useful introductions to arcane topics. Gerald Finkielsztejn writes on dating and standards of measure in Hellenistic times; James Allan on early Islamic glass stamps; Alla Kushnir-Stein on dating ancient Palestinian coins; Haggai Misgav on dating formulas in ancient Jewish documents; and Moshe Sharon on the Muslim calendar. The contributions of Elias Khamis on scales and Lionel Holland on precision weighing taken together constitute a very readable introduction to ancient weighing technology. Zaraza Friedman's essay on Nilometers (gauges of various design used to measure the height of the Nile in its inundation season), while far afield from the geographical focus of the volume, is a convenient introduction to these important ancient administrative devices.

Yigar Nevo's contribution ranges the farthest afield in chronology, and yet resonates in ways the others do not. It is concerned with the transition from Ottoman to metric systems of mensuration in Palestine in the 20th century. This is a story of resistance, an empirical and archival study that points up the cultural conservatism that characterises systems of measurement. Not surprisingly, the author demonstrates, merchants were reluctant to relinquish their ancient but comfortable Ottoman system of weight even two decades after passage of the 1928 Weights and Measures Ordinance of the British Mandatory Authority of Palestine. Adults in Britain will recall all too well the confusion accompanying the transition from the duodecimal to the decimal system of currency in the early 1970s - a transition that bears comparison to the disorientation millions of Europeans feel as they adapt to the euro.

Renate Rosenthal-Heginbottom looks anew at a 2nd-century Nabataean Zodiac relief sculpture first published half a century ago. She makes an intriguing case for its practical as well as spiritual significance, suggesting it was an almanac. The contribution by Ronny Reich on ancient architects' and masons' tools is an excellent concise summary of the archaeological evidence reminding us that the Greek roots of the word geometry - literally "earth measure" - betray an applied rather than theoretical genesis.

A few inconsistencies should have been resolved in editing. The Greek amphi phoreus is translated variously "carried by a pair of porters", (Raban) and "a handle set on each side of (a vessel's) neck" (Finkielsztejn). We learn in one essay that the Iron Age shekel was divided into 24 gera , but in another essay, 20 gera . Now and again accuracy and precision are confused; and there is the occasional cryptic comment - "No distinction has been made here between 'mass' and 'weight'. The ancients did not make such a distinction; nor is it relevant here." (Holland).

These idiosyncrasies notwithstanding, the Hecht Museum is to be congratulated for sponsoring an exhibition on a seldom-considered subject and an attractive companion volume. Measurement underlies virtually every aspect of our daily lives and, as this work ably shows, has done so for a very long time.

Karl M. Petruso is associate professor of anthropology, University of Texas at Arlington, United States.

Measuring and Weighing in Ancient Times

Author - The Reuben and Edith Hecht Museum
ISBN - 965 7034 06 X
Publisher - The Reuben and Edith Hecht Museum
University of Haifa
Price - £13.93, €22.64
Pages - 176

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